There’s nothing to celebrate in the United Kingdom’s sovereign decision to do itself irreparable harm.
- By Emile SimpsonEmile Simpson is a research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He was formerly a British Army officer.
Haven’t you heard? It’s Independence Day here in Britain! Rule Britannia!
At 6 a.m. this morning I went for a long run around Hampstead Heath, a park that rises above north London, to suck in the air of my newfound freedom. Surreal is the only word to describe the experience: No headphones, no one else around, running with the knowledge that something was wrong with the picture perfect glint of the city skyscrapers below on this beautiful summer morning (here: look at my photo). This is not what Independence Day was supposed to feel like.
An Independence Day is supposed to come at the moment of victory, after the carnage. The hard part is supposed to be over, and now the sunlit uplands lie ahead. That was indeed the story of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which closed decades of sectarian turmoil and civil war in England, and laid the foundation for the Bill of Rights of 1689, the Act of Union with Scotland of 1707, and the birth of Great Britain.
But today is not the dawn of victory. It’s more like the eve of battle. The carnage, domestic and international, lies ahead. The melee has only just started, and only once it settles — after heading, no doubt, in a direction nobody can predict or control — will we truly see what the once-United Kingdom looks like.
For a start, the sunlit uplands may end up looking more like the Elysian Fields, where Great Britain goes to die. As was widely predicted, but clearly of no concern to the introverted Little Englanders, the Leave result has re-opened the question of Scottish independence. Every single voting district in Scotland voted on balance to remain in the EU, and on that basis, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stated this morning that the Scotland’s future lies with the rest of Europe. A key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already claimed that Scotland can stay in the EU if it wants to. If you celebrate that, so be it. But for many of us, that is a catastrophe.
And the fight over Scotland’s future will be no less vicious than the fight to come in England, now that the incoherence in the Leave campaign’s vision has to be ironed out in the real world. Indeed, the Leave campaign’s promises, light on fact, and heavy on fantasy, are inherently contradictory.
On the one hand, there is the Little England of Nigel Farage, a nativist idyll that brims with an underlying violent menace that accompanies Farage’s brand of nationalistic identity politics. In his victory speech last night, we heard that “this is a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people […] and we will have done it without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired”. Translation: if you were one of the 48 percent of British citizens who voted Remain last night, you are not real, decent, or ordinary (yes, the “establishment elite” now covers half the voting population), you are not “really” British, and “we” would have had to use violence against you in the end anyway. In this vision of England, is there space for skilled immigrants, whether from the EU or not, to feel welcome and to compete on merit with native workers in a free market? Plainly not.
On the other hand, the Leave campaign has also promoted the unbounded, outward looking, global-trading-nation vision of campaigners like Daniel Hannan. This version of Britain, unshackled from European regulation sees us cutting trade agreements with emerging markets all over the world. Their vision is almost directly contradictory to Farage’s, given that it requires the kind of cultural openness that would involve the very levels of immigration whose rejection was at the heart of the nativist version of the leave campaign: Singapore on Thames and Little England can’t fit in the same country.
Moreover, the Leave campaign leaders are now on the hook for delivering on their dubious claim that the U.K. can continue to trade with the single market, which provides Britain with tariff free access to 500 million consumers, without any of the burdens. They suggest that the German government is inclined to offer such a deal, on the basis of such flimsy arguments like Berlin’s need to have the U.K. continue buying German cars. This argument stopped making sense when German finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble clearly stated previously “in is in, out is out”. And in any case, any and all EU member states can veto any new agreement with the U.K., so forget cutting any sweetheart deals. This will be a punitive peace in all but name. The coming re-negotiation deal with the EU will inevitably be acrimonious for the U.K. vis-à-vis its former EU partners, and divisive within the U.K. itself, as there are only two options, and both are bad: accept tariffs on trade with the EU through World Trade Organization Rules, which will harm trade; or accept the EU’s rules without any say over their content.
This is a recipe for political fragmentation, not political unity, whoever ends up as prime minister by October. And this is not even to start on the generational fight. On balance, the young did not want this result, but retirees did. They are the generation most susceptible to fantasies of a revived golden past, and they are also the generation most vulnerable to the pension cuts that may come should the working generation lose political sympathy for them. This is a toxic outcome.
I don’t feel like this is “Independence Day.” I feel that what is being demanded of those of us who voted to Remain is “Submission Day”. Submission on the part of those who see all British citizens as equal, regardless of where they come from, to those who see two classes amongst us: the “real” citizens, and the rest. The wounds this referendum have opened will only heal when our citizens once again feel that this is a land in which all can feel comfortable in their own skin. But that day is not today.
Photo credit: Sion Touhig/Getty Images